Friday, January 27, 2012


We’ve been inundated with news reports about the fiscal woes of the US Postal Service. Why is it that we never hear anything about another federal enterprise facing ongoing losses -- Amtrak? Consider the following…

Amtrak trains pass by my office a few times a day as they travel to and from Niagara Falls and points north. Despite the fact that the Falls is one of the most popular tourism destinations on the planet and the rail system stretches across an international border to a region ripe with economic activity, it’s very rare that I see anyone in the passenger cars. It’s patently obvious that public transportation via rail is unpopular, if not useless, locally.

That’s pretty much the case across the United States. That’s more than just an anecdotal observation; the proof is in the statistics. According to Amtrak, 78,000 passengers travel on their network daily. Considering we are a nation of approximately 307 million people that means only 0.025 percent of our population frequents the system. That woefully small number, combined with similar numbers from other public and private rail companies, puts the United States in last place among 32 nations that accumulate 5 billion or more passenger kilometers per year. The leader of that pack, Switzerland, sees its average citizen amass 2,422 km/year while commuting via train. The average American travels just 80 km/year by rail.

Even though such observational and statistical evidence shows that Americans are disinterested in rail travel, the federal government (and then, in turn, state governments who benefit from federal largesse) insist that we are interested. Truthfully, if the demand for commuter rail did exist in the second half of the 20th century and was a possibility for the first half of the 21st century, we would have seen a huge investment by the private sector in the development of both light rail and high-speed rail. But intelligent capitalists know a loser when they see one and will not enter into a business destined for failure. Government, though, doesn’t understand basic economics — or possess fiscal common sense — and chooses losing ventures that no one will touch.

The government-owned Amtrak has long operated in the red. 2010’s losses were once deemed unfathomable at $419.9 million. They were topped again for the fiscal year that ended in September when losses hit $560 million. This year’s losses are projected to be in excess of $600 million. This shows that the business model is completely unsalvageable — a casualty of bad management and a bad market.

The only reason that Amtrak stays alive is subsidies by taxpayers. Since the start of the 2000s, the United States has dedicated more than $1 billion per year to the broken system, and matters were only made worse by the Rail Safety Improvement Act signed into law in 2008 by President George W Bush. The Act guarantees annual funding of $2.6 billion through 2013. Even with the cash flow of such charity, Amtrak continues to string together losses.

Despite the glaring weaknesses of commuter rail (and the federal government’s business acumen), Washington is insistent on spending our money – and lots of it - on its ethereal demand.

Sadly, there’s no end in sight. Thinking the concept of high speed rail is the silver bullet that will win over the masses when it comes to the continued socialization of our means of travel, the White House announced a year ago that it will be “investing” $53 billion over the next 6 years to build such a network. That money will be used almost entirely by government entities, including state-run operations and Amtrak alike.

Only government officials could see a winner in high-speed commuter rail, having never learned a lesson from what ails the present system. Promoting and sustaining entities like Amtrak – with broken, irreparable operational systems and a market that won’t bear the investment – now and into the future has us speeding to fiscal destruction by adding to the unconscionable deficits and debts that burden us at the federal level.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at


This column originally ran in the 30 January 2012 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thursday, January 19, 2012


Hydrofracing ranks among the most contentious issues in New York. For each person clamoring for the jobs and economic development it will bring to the Empire State, there’s another who strongly opposes the method of natural gas extraction for it’s potential to damage the environment.

I can see the points on both sides. I’m 100 percent confident that the economic benefit to the counties that border Pennsylvania will be absolutely astounding. They are among the poorest regions in our state and it would be good to see their residents finally do well. Yet, on the other hand, I see considerable risk in the consumption of vast reserves of fresh water and the use and disposal thereof, only after it has been tainted by unidentified chemicals. The Allegheny foothills and the waters that flow from them are unique habitats, home to equally unique plants and animals. It would be horrible to see them forever altered as a consequence of Man’s actions. Our predecessors already did that with the Niagara River in the name of progress.

So, I see much benefit in the moratorium on fracing and the associated public comment period. If we allow the Department of Environmental Conservation some time to assess such development in other states, we can maximize our successes and minimize our failures. The DEC also needs time to sift through all the baloney. Both sides of the issue have inundated the agency with mistruths and half-truths.

The DEC as a public entity must be able to approach hydrofracing from a reasonable, thoughtful, and well-informed perspective. That’s difficult with all of the one-sided propaganda thrown their way. As an example, one of the most sensationalized talking points that dominate the conversation against hydrofracing – ultimately doing a great disservice to meaningful aspects of the environmental movement – is this belief that the process can set your drinking water on fire.

This goes back to the popular anti-fracing documentary Gasland. In a famous moment from it, Colorado property owner Mike Markham puts a lighter to his running tap and a huge fireball ensues. What the film did not say is the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission found that the methane in Markham’s drinking water was naturally-occurring and not a result of fracing. The COGCC also notified Markham and others with similar complaints that they should be venting their private wells to prevent the entrapment of excess levels of gas found in them. In short, Markham’s problems are the doing of Mother Nature and himself.

It should also be noted that flammable water can occur throughout the United States, even in areas far away from the typical hotbeds of past and future gas extraction; case in point: Gasport. It’s called “Gas”port for a reason. The hamlet once known as Jamesport had its name changed in 1826 when an engineering team working on the Erie Canal found gas emanating from the ground and water.

Most of those sites have long since been built over, but one remains on our farm. There is a small area, maybe an acre in size, where, even in the heat of summer, the soil remains cold to the touch. The shore of a stream froths white, stinky methane-loaded compounds, and, most interestingly, the water itself bubbles non-stop from gas. There, I can repeat Markham’s experiment, although in a more natural setting (sans tap). If I place a match over the bubbles, the flame expands and puffs. If I lay a plastic bag over the water and allow the gas to build up within it and then light it, the bag “explodes”. Decades ago when hoboes traveled the land they set pipes in the water to create eternal flames for cooking. And, believe it or not, hydrofracing has never occurred here!

The moral to the story is this: We, as good citizens, – and the agencies that oversee our public welfare – should proceed intellectually, not emotionally, when it comes to hydrofracing. We must ignore the hype from both sides (such as this fire water mythology) and proceed in manner that best serves our people, economy and environment. We have but one chance to get it right.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at


This column originally ran in the 23 January 2012 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Bobcats in Niagara County

By Bob Confer

In recent years Niagara County residents have had the chance to witness some interesting animals within our borders. Among those that generated the most press and most talk were the black bears that frequented the area for a couple of months. The beasts elicited either fear or appreciation, depending on one’s perception of bruins. More often than not, the former emotion ruled the day.

There’s an animal that’s as equally misunderstood frequenting our County now, the elusive bobcat. One ran across the road in front of me during my morning commute through the town of Lockport last week. This was the second bobcat that I’ve seen in our neck of the woods since 2006. I saw the first one late at night in the northeastern part of the town as well. That one hung around for a few weeks, having left its tracks throughout our farm before it moved on.

These bobcats were exciting sights, as wildcats are not often seen in these parts of Western New York. While uncommon in our Southern Tier, they are downright rare in the Niagara Frontier as they probably don’t breed in this area (although the vast Alabama Swamps should never be ruled out). Like the young bears of a few years ago, they are probably just passing through.

I shared my most recent experience on Facebook and in conversation and the responses ran the gamut from “awesome” to “are they dangerous?” I even got a couple of “Thank you, now I know I’m not crazy” comments, with some people admitting that they’ve seen what they thought were bobcats in recent months yet they didn’t want to admit as much for fear of being ignored or kidded.

Another sort of fear is a common denominator in people’s beliefs about bobcats. When many people hear “bobcat” they think “mountain lion”, hence the hesitation. Other than being felines, they are not alike. Bobcats are not gigantic pet-eating, man-attacking beasts that are 7 feet long and more than 100 pounds in weight. Rather, they’re small, just a little bit bigger than a red fox. They weigh between 15 and 20 pounds and are around 30 inches in length and 20 inches tall. They don’t attack people (they are extremely skittish) and, in this region where their prey is plentiful, they won’t eat your small dogs and cats. Their diet consists mostly of smaller rodents (like voles and mice), rabbits, squirrels, road kill and birds…a smorgasbord no different than that taken by feral and free-roaming domesticated cats. You aren’t afraid of them are you?

Bobcats really can’t be confused with any other animal in the area. Beyond their impressive size for a local cat - they are much taller than a house cat and 2 to 3 times their weight - their stunted bobbed tail (hence the name) and spectacular coats are dead giveaways. So, if you do see a bobcat (or what you believe to be a bobcat) in Niagara County, do what you can to snap a picture of it. Even if you can’t, still report your sightings to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. The DEC is interested in learning everything they can about the distribution and abundance of the cats out of their population epicenters of the Adirondacks and Catskills, areas where they are common enough, by the way, to be hunted or trapped. Send your photos and observations to with “Bobcat Observation Report” in the subject line.

Good luck in seeing one of these creatures. And, if you do, consider yourself fortunate, not imperiled (bobcats are more afraid of you than you of them), and savor that rare and fleeting moment.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at


This column originally ran in the 16 January 2012 Greater Niagara Newspapers

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Payroll tax cut: Why stop at $40?

On December 22 President Barack Obama released the following message through the White House’s Twitter account: "Thanks to all who shared #40dollars [sic] stories. Today's victory is yours. Keep making your voices heard — it makes all the difference. — bo"

This was in direct response to the Republican House of Representatives capitulating to the President and the Democratic Senate and allowing a shortened 2-month extension of the payroll tax cut, rather than forcing through the 1-year extension that the GOP was gunning for.

The President attributed the about-face of Congress to the tens of thousands of tweets by his Twitter followers through which they answered his call to action issued just two days earlier when he asked what $40 meant to them. They used the hashtag application of Twitter to tell their stories, making the #40dollar movement “trend” (become one of the most popular subjects) on the network as they waxed poetic about everything from feeding their families to filling their gas tanks.

It was a sad example of the effect that Big Government and its propaganda have on its people. The countless stories tugged at the heartstrings and most were meaningful in their intent, but they were reminiscent of dogs begging their master for scraps from the dinner table, with the federal government assuming the role of master and the taxpayers the dogs — a total reversal of what the roles should be.

The $40 has ended up being nothing more than fat and gristle scraped away from what was a prime cut of meat. The starved dogs that our people have become deserve the finer meat in its entirety. After all, it’s our money — not the government’s, as so many feel obligated to believe.

It’s that belief in mistruths that dominated the #40dollar campaign and made it so successful, starting with the very dollar amount itself. The throng — led by the propaganda machine and mainstream media — believed that every one of them would have access to $40 every week because of the tax cut. But, $40 is not the average amount that Americans will keep; it’s more likely the maximum allowable amount. According to government studies, the average wage nationally was $39,959 or $768 per week in 2010. Obama’s payroll tax cut is two percent, or an average of $15 per worker per week — a far cry from the advertised $40.

Obama, though, was not alone in misleading America. The Republicans were equally disingenuous. You see, their ultimate goal is to maintain the tax in its entirety for the long- term (following the political build-up to the 2012 election), as most Republicans are no different from their Democratic brethren when it comes to Big Government. You could see that hidden in the message pushed by the GOP, in which they said the current two-month extension wasn’t enough, that one year was needed to offer consumers and businesses certainty. One year? Why not permanently repeal the tax? One year does not constitute tax certainty. Any individual trying to eke it out in this economy will tell you that long-term certainty — a known that extends permanently into the future — is what’s needed if he or she wants to determine what best to do with the “$40 dollars." Will it go toward a new mortgage? Will it go into a 401(k)? Will it go toward a child’s college education? None of those decisions can be made if the tax cut will be known to have a sunset a year out.

Getting back to the table scraps, why should we stop at the mythical $40-dollar mark? If Washington truly cared about the state of the economy and the ability of people to make it and themselves better, they would permit the citizenry to keep more of their hard-earned money and achieve a healthier economy and a better life through self-determination and the free markets. Forty dollars is but a very small tip of a gigantic iceberg.

Why not permanently eliminate the entire 6.2-percent Social Security tax burden that is placed on the worker (and equally on the employer) and destroy this broken social welfare program, allowing the individual to invest in his own retirement and not that of others? Why not eliminate the other payroll tax earmarked for Medicare (1.45 percent for both the employee and the employer) and empower the person to invest in private sector health care alternatives? Eliminating those two taxes would put $59 back into the pockets of the people every week, and an equal amount would be available to employers to invest in their growth and other competitive factors.

And, while we’re at it, why not also diminish the scale of income taxes by going back to constitutional basics and disbanding the likes of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Education, and the Department of Transportation, all of which redundantly — and poorly — duplicate functions held at the state level? It’s often been said that were the federal government right-sized, it would be one-tenth its size and one-tenth its cost. If that were the case, the average worker (who falls in the 15-percent tax bracket), would pay $599 rather than $5994 in income taxes per year. That’s an extra $104 per week.

If the so-called $40 can be counted as a “victory” (Obama’s words) then it’s a victory for the government, not the people. We are definitely on the losing end of the relationship which we maintain with this outsized federal system ruling every facet of our lives. If we truly were victorious, the $40 (or, more accurately, $15) would pale in comparison to the $163 discovered above.

Bob Confer is a regular contributor to The New American. He also writes a weekly column for the Greater Niagara Newspapers and is the vice-president of Confer Plastics, Inc.

This column originally appeared in the 27 Dec 2011 The New American at:

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Observations about Social Security

By Bob Confer

In the days leading up to Christmas, the White House unleashed a huge social media marketing campaign to get people involved in the political discourse surrounding the extension of the payroll (Social Security) tax cut for another 2 months. To fire up the masses, President Obama and his staff framed the activism with the basic premise of “What does $40 mean to you?”

The $40 in question was identified as being what Americans would continue to keep on a weekly basis were the cut prolonged. Believe it not, the number was a mistruth.

$40 is not the average amount Americans will receive. Rather, it’s the maximum. Most people won’t even come close to it. According to the administrators of Social Security, the average American income was $39,959 in 2010, or $768 per week. Under the 2 percent cut, the weekly benefit works out to be $15.

The $40 incentive certainly got a lot of people fired up, who subsequently tweeted in volume about the importance of that money in making ends meet in their homes. That, in turn, forced the GOP’s hand in agreeing to the 2-month extension. Now, if the White House had been genuine about it and used $15 as the value, would the campaign have been successful? I doubt it.

Gotta love propaganda.


The Associated Press, among others, have reported on the Social Security tax cut with some trepidation, saying that the previously unheard-of act of pulling SSI funding from the federal government’s general pool of revenues (to keep Social Security whole by making up for the loss of the payroll tax) puts the program at risk because, if the cut lingers, SSI will have to compete with other programs and various departments for funding in the future.

I, too, share some reservations, but mine are on the other end of the spectrum that the AP’s worries are founded in. I see this manner of funding as being the easy way out for Congress and the Executive Branch. They can fix Social Security without actually fixing it. By dipping into the universal kitty, the trustees now have access to nearly unlimited reserves and, ultimately, new means of funding (potential new excise and sales taxes). No longer will Social Security have to live within the means of the mythical trust fund that was created solely from payroll taxes (employee and employer contributions). When times get tough, they’ll just grab money elsewhere.

This tax cut sets an ugly precedent that will really take hold in my lifetime. Social Security is saddled $21.4 trillion in unfunded liabilities, all of which will, within the next 20 years, start to see substantial bailouts from alternative sources, thus harming the rest of the economy.


One of the fixes to Social Security – and Medicare for that matter – that keeps getting thrown around is means testing. This concept really gained popularity in the deficit reduction talks of 2011 and many on both sides of the aisle believe it will be discussed at length in 2012 as Congress gets serious - or as serious as they can be - about our long-term obligations.

Under means testing, the wealth of retirees will be taken into consideration in regard to their receipt of publicly funded benefits. If a senior is found to possess “too much” in the form of 401(k)s, IRAs, pensions, savings accounts, and their homes, they will receive less from Social Security and will have to contribute more to the care they receive under Medicare.

That is incredibly unfair because means testing will penalize those who planned for their future and reward those who didn’t. For a good many Americans there will be a lesser – or no - incentive to save and invest because what they would have forgone in their working years for betterment of life in their later years would be deducted from what they had already contributed to those social welfare programs (which, in most cases, is at the same amount the non-savers had contributed during their careers).

Because of that, means testing would only serve to drive more people to not put away for tomorrow and, therefore, rely on government for the full provision of their post-employment needs.

And people wonder why America is in decline.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at


This column originally ran in the 09 January 2012 Greater Niagara Newspapers